Montclair Town Council voted to end temporary administrative leave for Timothy Stafford in early February.

Montclair, NJ – There has been no information regarding the status of Montclair’s town manager but Councilor Bob Russo made some revealing statements Monday night at the end of a long public comment session where frustrated residents called for transparency.

Russo responded to a question posed by resident Lani Sommer-Padilla during public comment. She asked if Montclair town manager Timothy Stafford had asked for a public hearing, and if not, why had the council not voted to fire him yet?

Earlier in public comment, resident Christina Thomas also mentioned the town manager, saying she had asked months ago whether he had requested a public hearing and received no response. Thomas also asked if Stafford had filed any sort of Notice of Claim.

Montclair’s Town Council had voted in early February to end temporary administrative leave for Stafford and then adopted a preliminary resolution stating reasons for removal of Stafford pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:69A-93

The resolution stated the Council of the Township of Montclair “has determined it is in the best interest of the Township to go in a different management direction.”

The resolution ended speculation that the town manager might return, but there has been no further communication about the town manager’s status since the February 8 meeting voting to initiate his removal.

Pursuant to N.J.S.A. 40:69A-93, Stafford was subject to removal effective on or after 30 days from the date of the resolution, but he was suspended from duty and was to be paid his salary for up to three calendar months following adoption of this preliminary resolution. The Town Manager can reply in writing and request a public hearing which would have taken place no later than 30 days from filing the request. After a public hearing, if one is requested, and after full consideration, the Township Council may then, by a majority vote of its members, adopt a final resolution of removal.

On Monday, Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, who was presiding over the council meeting in Mayor Sean Spiller’s absence, referred the question from Sommer-Padilla to the Township’s legal team.

Acting town attorney Paul Burr said he was unable to comment because there was “litigation, actually pre-litigation on a personnel matter.”

Russo wanted to know why the constituent could not get an answer.

“Why can’t we tell the public and press anything? Can’t we tell them ‘the man wanted a hearing, then he didn’t want a hearing, then he wanted a hearing again, then we postponed it two weeks. What’s wrong with telling the public that? So I just did it, okay. Lock me up!” said Russo. “The guy is stalling, prolonging and trying to beat us over the head for money,” said Russo, adding that he was a truth teller and the Township was “heading toward a big problem” unless “we just have the man terminated.”

Later in the meeting, it was Russo who asked why the Council was voting to award a contract not to exceed $80,000 for Eric M. Bernstein & Associates for tax appeal attorney services, when Bernstein is principal at the law firm representing Stafford in the suit brought by Montclair CFO Padmaja Rao.

Russo wasn’t the only councilor answering questions posed by a constituent during public comment. Bonnie Fogel came to the podium and asked all the councilors how they feel about the action initiated Councilor Yacobellis, involving two individuals, one of which is a constituent.

Councilor Lori Price Abrams and Councilor David Cummings would not comment. Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock, responding as a lawyer and not as deputy mayor, said “it would be inappropriate for me to comment on any pending legal actions — and I say actions with an ‘s’ — because there’s a lot of them right now. I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to respond.”

“I will tell you how I feel,” said Councilor Robin Schlager. “About a month ago, a constituent, a member of the public, came up to the podium and attacked me and I walked out of the meeting. As a person, as a woman, and somebody who has feelings, it’s very, very difficult to sit up here sometimes. I understand how the Councilman [Yacobellis] could have felt, because I felt that way, too. I feel everybody should do what they feel is best in their heart. And that’s what he felt was best to do. Just like I got up and walked out.”

Councilor Bob Russo said he had been on the council 23 years and he had “never seen as much dysfunction in government as I see now.”

2023 Budget Hearing Moved to May

While Russo revealed that a hearing with Timothy Stafford might take place, a significant portion of the meeting was focused on a different hearing — the 2023 budget hearing and when that would take place, and reactions to the council members first receiving the 2023 budget on Friday.

A budget presentation was started, led by CFO Padmaja Rao and Bob Benecke remotely was cut short.

By the time public comment was over, it was already 9:30 p.m. A budget presentation was started and then ultimately stopped, after Councilor Lori Price Abrams and Councilor Yacobellis voiced concerns about not having time to review. There were also questions about what voting to introduce the budget would mean for the timing of the budget process.

After some back and forth regarding whether to table the resolution, the Council voted 5-1 instead to introduce the budget (Russo abstained), but extend the adoption of the budget so the hearing would take place on May 16th, rather than on April 25. By extending the time frame, Councilor Yacobellis, Councilor Robin Schlager and Councilor Lori Price Abrams, would also have an opportunity to meet with the budget team and ask questions before any public hearing.

Defense and Indemnification Ordinance Passed on First Reading

The Town Council also introduced an ordinance Monday entitling officers or employees of the Township, whether elected or appointed (except employees of the Township Police Department or Fire Department) to a defense or indemnification under N.J.S.A. 40A:14-28 and 40A:1 4-1 55.

The ordinance would apply to any pending, threatened or completed civil, criminal, administrative or arbitrative action, suit or proceeding, and any appeal, inquiry or investigation which could lead to an action, suit or proceeding.

The ordinance states the Township Attorney shall provide for the defense of any legal action or proceeding against an employee arising out of an act or omission within the scope of employment or authority provided the employee. The employee would requests a legal defense in writing and provide the Township Attorney any summons, complaint, process, notice, demand, or pleading.

Councilor Russo asked about the genesis of this ordinance.

Assistant Township Attorney Gina DeVito said some questions were raised by members of the council and the legal department reviewed the code and found that Montclair, unlike many other municipalities, did not have this indemnification in its code. DeVito said they reviewed many ordinances from other municipalities and conferred with outside counsel.

“I don’t want to throw my colleagues under the bus,” said Russo, adding that he believed this ordinance was a response to whether council members should receive health care benefits from the Township under the state plan.

Both DeVito and Burr asked Russo and the rest of the council to refrain from speaking about pending litigation.

“I am reminding you as we are talking about the indemnification and defense ordinance that the township is lacking, to be mindful that statements made in public could waive indemnification of yourselves in the capacity that you are acting as elected officials and subject you to some liability issues,” said Burr.

The ordinance passed on first reading, with Russo abstaining. A second reading will take place at the next council meeting.

YouTube video

19 replies on “Montclair Council: Budget Introduced, Hearing Postponed; Talk of Hearing For Town Manager”

  1. If Bob is right, and this pertains to the health benefits, then there has to be some very nervous council members. This wouldn’t be a civil suit, it would be criminal. Let’s hope none of them submitted any falsified records like the Wildwood mayor and council members did. The one councilor down there is facing three years in prison.

  2. Frank, you seem prejudiced when comes to Montclair vs down south.
    The oft repeated bromide that somehow Montclair is exceptional in terms of high moral standards has been effectively debunked by the behavior of this council and administration.
    When it comes to greed/abuse (be it illegally obtained health benefits, abuse of women, “creative” procurement of contracts, nepotism, etc.), this council has been disappointing in most egregious ways. I guess we can say we are exceptional in our ability to sell ice to the Eskimos. We success fully sell our underperforming schools as best in the nation and we sell virtue signaling as actual virtues.

  3. The council is actively promoting gentrification and displacement, mishandling budget matters, is under a series of lawsuits (and at least one suing constituents) dodging questions about contracts and then gets upset when the public calls them out? Or even asks questions? Seriously. You are hurting low and moderate income families every day and only care about your own feelings and egos.

  4. Councilor Russo laments that he has “never seen as much dysfunction in government as I see now.” He won’t need another 23 years before realizing it will only get worse. When the movie “Idiocracy” first came out I thought it was hilarious but ridiculously far-fetched. More and more I find people scratching their heads in disbelief with what morons in power can accomplish and the only reference they seem to be able to agree on is to tell others to “watch the movie.”

  5. Indemnification huh? How much is that going to cost the town (taxpayer)? Is this in relation to the health benefits as Russo eludes to? Is it because one Council person spoke about personnel matters openly in public and could face litigation? How many lawsuits are actually pending? A little sneaky that this was brought in at the end of the evening and wasn’t even originally on the agenda. hmmmmmmm

  6. Bravo, Councilor Russo, bravo! You had some less than splendid moments in the past, but at last Monday’s council meeting you were absolutely spectacular!

    Residents have asked and asked: what is the status of Manager Stafford? Where’s the final resolution for removal? What is the Council waiting for? Has Stafford requested a public hearing? These are legitimate questions and this is PUBLIC INFORMATION.

    It was quite funny the way Russo said it: “Stafford wanted a hearing, then he didn’t want a hearing, then he wanted a hearing again. It’s clear that what he really wants is a six-figure send-off. There, I said it. Go ahead and arrest me.”

    While the humor of what he said is not lost on me, I also appreciate the tragedy of it. It sounds like our dysfunctional Council (minus Russo) wants to give Stafford MORE than the statutorily allowed 3 months of salary. The law says that is ALL outgoing manager is entitled to! I don’t understand. The guy has been sitting home and collecting a pile of cash each month since October 25. Just how long are they planning to keep it going?!

    As far as the indemnification ordinance, at first, I wasn’t sure what this was all about. Thank you, Councilor Russo, for connecting the dots for me. I get it now: the Council wants to have a guarantee that we, the taxpayers, are on the hook for their legal defense in the health benefits scandal. Without this ordinance, they might be on the hook themselves. They will vote on this at the next council meeting. My crystal ball says that Russo will be the only one against. I wonder why. Could it be that he is the only one who declined health benefits AND the opt-out payout? Sounds plausible.

    It is interesting, by the way, how secretive they were about the whole thing. All shady deals are done without being listed on the agenda and voted on in the middle of the night, when few people are paying attention. Bottom line, we are getting fleeced twice here: (1) we paid in the past for the Council illegally taking health benefits, and (2) now (assuming this ordinance is adopted at the next meeting), we’ll be on the hook for their legal defense. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

    What I would like to know, what is the dollar limit with this ‘indemnity’? None was provided during the Monday meeting despite Councilor Russo asking for it. From my looking at it (through the lens of what happened in Wildwood), I foresee many senior and other programs cut to pay for the council’s costs.

    Parenthetically, it was interesting how town attorneys tried to spin it into due diligence. “Oh, we have just noticed now that there’s a void in the Township’s Code and we thought that void should be filled.” Timing is everything, isn’t it? Hey, Mr. Burr, why don’t you “fill that void” with your own money if Council’s pocketbooks are so important to you?

    Again, bravo, Councilor Russo!

  7. I don’t understand is why we have 2 town attorneys and 2 municipal clerks assisting with council meetings. Ever since I remember, it used to be 1 attorney and 1 clerk. What gives? The way I see it, it can only mean one of the two things. Either (1) the principals (Burr and Nieves) can’t handle the job by themselves, or (2) their respective reports (Devito and “The Clerk #2 Whose Name I Don’t Know”) are bilking the Town (meaning us) for unnecessary overtime.

    I was curious so I checked with a bunch of other NJ municipalities – in every single one I called, only one attorney and one clerk attend council/board meetings. Where does waste, incompetence, and abuse end In the Town of Montclair?

  8. Pat.gottlieb: As long as Montclair keeps living off its illusions it will only get worse.

    I don’t know how long we can keep thumping our chests that we are a diverse, inclusive suburban idyll with an exceptional school system when in fact our African-American community is de facto segregated by geography, our social justice factions wail incessantly about their marginalization and every fool knows the schools are a smoldering wreckage. And does Anyone have Anything good to say about our local government?

    Not one person I know who has moved from here in the last ten years (and I know a LOT) has expressed any longing to return. They might have some good memories, but of a time that seems so long ago. “How long can you keep living there?” is the one question I hear time and time again. I don’t think an extra clerk and an extra lawyer at Council meetings are the core of the problem. But you make a fine point: they are a creeping reminder that something is rotted and needs to be taken out by the roots.

  9. Eye,
    Funny you should mention roots. Montclair is not the type of town where people set down roots. People move to Montclair like they buy the latest fashion. When that gets old they adapt or move out. Moving out is the most popular option. Montclair is place that residents use for their own benefit. Nice house, educate the kids, convenient to NYC, airports, entertainment, restaurants etc with the added bonus of being one of the “cool kids” because Montclair is so cutting edge. One day you wake up and find the kids are grown and your taxes have doubled. You question your sanity until you realize your house has at least doubled in price. Why worry about local politics when the only thing that really matters is the value of your home. Until that changes who cares? There are banks to protest, festivals to attend, and signs to put up on the lawn. All that being said Montclair is a fun place to live.

  10. I agree with flipside. Except that if we “don’t worry about local politics” it may be forced into a “Back to the Future” trip where… we find the Town insolvent.

  11. Thank you for posting Frank and thanks to Michael Norman, the author of the piece. It is beautifully written. And not a word about politics or taxes.

    Those not born and raised here, those with no real emotional skin in the game cast a particularly jaundiced eye. Too bad for them. You and I some others here remember. We are the fortunate ones. As the author says, “long after we left, it lingered in the memory.”

  12. Frank,
    Nothing like a 30 year old article about Montclair to warm the heart. Fortunately the hardware store from across the street jumped in to fill the void. (shocking that another supermarket didn’t fill the Pathmark void) Back then it was the fear of Home Depot and big box stores killing the town yet here we are bigger and more vibrant than ever. I will admit I miss the good old days when Montclair had more of small town feel but those days are gone. Sometimes I feel that Montclair is a place of a thousand causes but no common cause. Life goes on.

  13. I was curious to the reaction it would receive. I didn’t include a comment for that reason.
    Warm the heart? It gave me with the willies. It made me speculate how much I didn’t see (or properly weigh) back when and if today’s Montclair is an eerily accurate version of what I missed.

    I am certain people haven’t changed. I like change. I wish we could change. What has clearly changed is the nature of the town from farmland, to a retreat from the city, to a full-blown suburb, to a wannabe borough of NYC. And now COIVD, technology, and climate will redirect us from the last desire on to another mini era.

    No, the article was depressing.

  14. Frank,
    I think you know I was being facetious with warm the heart comment. Those were strange times in Montclair. The hardware store closed, Church St. resembled a ghost town, taxes jumped because we lost some state funding for the schools, the economy was shaky, and to top it off soon after we had the Post Office shooting. I bought a house in foreclosure for a 1/4 of its assessed value. Dark, unstable days yet here we are on the verge of becoming a booming metropolis. Happy days are here again! ….or maybe not. Depends on your point of view.

  15. flipside,

    Sorry, I lost interest over the weekend in assessing Montclair of the past. Your original post summed it up for past, present & future.

Comments are closed.